In twenty-four hours, I’m in Ethiopia. Thirty hours and i’m sitting on the floor in an orphanage in the capital city of Addis Ababa with my friend Kelly. How to feel? My heart is liquid. I’m meeting Kelly’s soon-to-be-daughter along with ten or so other babies between the ages of one and two years-old, sitting or standing in cribs that create a perimeter along the room, eyes locked on we visitors. One girl bounces back and forth from one leg to the other and as soon as a set of eyes meets hers, a smile overwhelms her face, the room and me. I’m convinced her smile provides sustainable electricity to the whole orphanage. Seven thousand miles away, as I write this now, I smile at the memory of her smile.
Back in the baby-filled room, my camera is capturing the beautiful moments between Kelly and her daughter. I can’t help but give attention to the other babies too. I connect with another pair of eyes. I’d guess he’s two years old. Remembering how my nephew responded at two years old, I go for the classic peek-a-boo. His eyes see not only through my hands, but right through me. In my mind, I’m saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’re here and all I’m giving you is a silly game that I’m sure you’ve outgrown.” I’m certain that he’s been forced to grow quicker than the sheltered little people where I come from.
I’ve got nothing. But then, his two arms go up and out. Universal for, “pick me up!” I look around to get an okay from one of the women who take care of these babies. Lift off. Yup, he feels like any other baby I’ve held. I put him down on the ground and we start playing with a ball that I will later discover is the holy grail of this place. The baby who holds the ball, holds might in her or his hands. This is fun. But I feel bad for not playing with the others too. And I feel sad for all of them, born at a time and into a place in which parents could not adequately care for them. It is the same time and planet where many babies have more attention and possessions than they could ever need, with a toy to baby ratio not less than 100:1. In this orphanage, the ratio is closer to 2:1. Injustice.
An incoming crowd interrupts that thought. It becomes apparent that these are more adoptive parents flooding the room. Babies are lifted from their cribs and wrapped in attention. The center is now a play pen. What had been a relatively quiet room, radiates with the energy. The sadness I had just experienced now feels unfounded; it is hijacked by hope. These kids are going to be okay. They are okay.
There is this tension between perception and reality. We travel the world with our own baggage, experiencing it through a specific lens. I’ve thought about that quite a bit as I’ve tried to tie up this blog post for the last several weeks. I’ve thought about the babies we met in that orphanage and how to make sense of my feelings from the trip. There are some raw emotions there that I haven’t quite figured out how to put down or even understand. So, at least for right now, I call up the mental image of that smile. And I think of those eyes. And I think of the little baby girl that’s coming home soon with Kelly – the beautiful life that I know they will have together. I think about how fortunate I am to have experienced their first moments together and how fortunate I will be to be a part of that growing love. And I smile.